A team of researchers from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and the University of Texas has found that East Asian and American Facebook users differ substantially in their self-presentation on the most popular online social network site.
For millions of Western users, the picture they choose to illustrate themselves on Facebook is an important decision to make. They know it can be the first impression that anyone in the world receives of them, so they’re often deeply conscious of what features are displayed and what flaws are hidden by their chosen image. But despite their careful deliberation the decision may not be a personal or independent one at all – the choice may be more conditioned by cultural factors than anyone assumes.
To test this hypothesis and explore cultural variations in self-presentation on Facebook, the researchers examined differences in photographs of active Facebook users in two studies.
In the first study, they analyzed 200 randomly selected profile face photographs of native and immigrant Taiwanese and Americans. For the second, the researchers studied 312 Facebook profiles of undergraduate students from six public universities in East Asia (Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan) and the United States.
Their findings, published in the International Journal of Psychology, show that the Facebook profile pictures of Westerners are more likely to zoom-in and focus on the individual’s face than those of Facebook users from the more collectivistic and interdependent cultures of East Asia, whose profile photographs generally pull-out to include more background features.
These findings echo previous research on cultural factors influencing cognitive preferences: East Asians are more sensitive to contextual information than Westerners, who tend to process focal and discrete attributes of the environment. This is the first evidence that such real-world trends are carried over into the way we present ourselves online.
Remarkably, the research also found that these cultural influences over our self-presentation can shift over time and from place-to-place. So East Asian students at American universities, for example, will be more likely to follow the preferences of their hosts and go for close-ups of their own face in their profile pictures.
Worth thinking about next time you’re updating your online profile pictures – for example, on your LinkedIn profile, what impression are you giving of yourself? Are potential employers seeing a close-up of your face, and will they think you’re a hands-on, details-oriented person? Or should you consider a wider angle and a more interesting background, presenting you as an expansive ‘big picture’ employee?
Bibliographic information: Chih-Mao Huang, Denise Park. 2012. Cultural influences on Facebook photographs. International Journal of Psychology. Ahead of print. DOI:10.1080/ 00207594.2011.649285